Monday, December 6, 2010

Don Draper exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke and replies, "I like soccer. I prefer soccer to baseball."

I'm in charge of writing and recording conversational listening tests for the oral communication class at my school. To the amusement of nobody but myself I select a different show or movie to draw all the characters from for each exam. I have created a version of Mad Men in which all Don Draper and Peggy Olsen ever do is ask each other about their favorite foods and get directions to the movie theater. Emmy here I come.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Oishii, ooimo

You may remember last fall that I mentioned the Yakiimo man, who is sort of the Japanese autumnal equivalent of the ice cream man. It's basically a guy who sells hot-baked sweet potatoes on the street out of the back of his truck.

Usually, it's around 9 or 10 PM when we hear the strangely ominous noise of the Yakiimo song. It's always some old guy singing in an odd warble, a capella, about how he has many delicious potatoes (oddly enough, each song seems to be unique to the individual seller!). The problem is that we hear the song, but the guy simply drives by our place, and doesn't stop anywhere nearby.

As it happens, a Yakiimo truck went by around 10 PM last night, and actually stopped across from our building! I decide to seize the opportunity, since I've lived in this country for damn near a year and a half but haven't actually had the chance tried the stuff yet.

Here's how it works: the guy's parked in his truck. You signal to him that you want some of his wares, and he gets out. You let him know whether you want a small one (300 yen, about $3.50) or a big one (500 yen, about $6). He pulls one out of his janky-looking grill, wraps it in some newspaper (!), and hands it over.

My reaction? It's pretty tasty! You can pretty much eat it as soon as you buy it, skin and all, and it (predictably enough) is sweet, and has a crumbly but soft texture. If you happen to be in Japan in the fall, I encourage you to give it a shot, but I don't know if I can recommend buying newspaper-wrapped snacks out of the back of some weird old guy's pickup truck in any other context.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Oh Yoshimi, they don't believe me, but you won't let those robots eat me

A month ago we sought to book a cheap hotel in Kyoto for another Kansai region adventure the weekend of November 13th only to find none with any openings. Why? People go crazy about leaves. We're more interested in food than foliage, but we still had to pay more for a room than we would have liked.

Our only touristy activity in Kyoto was to head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its rows of torii gates.

inari torii

We headed to Nara as a day trip. The park there is brimming with tame deer, who were declared sacred ages ago. We shot a little bit of video:

The shrines in Nara had quite a few little girls decked out in kimonos for the Shichi-Go-San rite of passage celebration.

first shrine visit

On Monday I had two of my goals fulfilled. The more short term goal was to see a concert in Japan. The second goal, which I've had since I was a wee little one, was to see a Flaming Lips concert.

Stray observations on the Japanese concert going experience:

*Japan's lack of debit cards and my lack of a credit card often leads to some interesting ways of buying things. We purchased our tickets by going to a convenience store in Kanazawa and entering the concert code into a machine. We paid at the register and the clerk gave us paper tickets. The price was as listed (no Ticketmaster-esque fees!) but there was one catch…

* The venue (the Nanba Hatch in Osaka, a medium sized theater shaped like a UFO) forced you to buy a 500 yen ($6) drink voucher. My most expensive bottle of water ever.

* The concert itself wasn't cheap either, and I've skipped going to other shows because they're almost double what you'd pay in the states.

* Japanese men seem to think nothing of going directly from work to a concert, still wearing a suit. Many of them will not even loosen their ties or take off their jackets. I'm pretty sure there are several men in Osaka who will be finding hidden pieces of confetti in their suits for weeks.

* The crowd was very well behaved. The only distractingly annoying people shouting things were gaijin, of course.

* First concert I've been to where not a single audience member smoked pot. It was likely also the first Flaming Lips show with zero pot.

For the uninitiated, the Flaming Lips are known for their loud, extravagant, punk meets acid meets theater shows, and they did not disappoint. The concert started with singer Wayne Coyne crowd surfing inside a plastic bubble, scores of giant balloons dropping, and an unbelievable amount of confetti firing from cannons. At one point I started watching a five year old girl(!) attempting to grab a balloon seven times her size and when I returned my gaze to the stage the singer was riding the shoulders of a man in a realistic bear costume and shouting through a megaphone. It was wonderful. Don't think that the theatrics are there to make up for a lack of musical ability, as they've actually managed to become talented over the years. The only slow bit of the show was when they overestimated the audience's English ability and willingness to act abnormally. A lesson I've often learned in class is that if you ask somebody here to act like monkey they're simply not going to do it. It's what the gaijin are for.

Flaming Lips Hong Kong
A visual summary of a Flaming Lips concert

Unfortunately I couldn't take Tuesday off because most of the English teachers had to go on a business trip so I had to run classes solo. (There's nothing I want to do more first period than teach my rowdiest, lowest level first year students on four hours of sleep…) Sadly, this meant we had to catch the train back up to Kanazawa when it felt like the concert just got going, meaning that I'm not entirely sure goal number two was fulfilled. It was nice that the venue was on the small side compared to where the band normally plays at, but the next time the Flaming Lips are around (and I have a better schedule), I think I'll have to check them out again, because I don't have nearly enough confetti and space bubbles in my life.

I'd like to conclude this excessively long blog post with one minor factoid: in Shin-Osaka station there was a robotic trash collection cart that played "It's a Small World" as it made its way through the halls.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rushi in za sukai wizu daimondozu

Today at school I saw ikebana, a Michael Jackson impersonator, and multiple students in drag. It can only mean one thing: the school festival! These are the biggest annual events at Japanese high schools, and they're basically the only times the students get to show a little creativity. The main events take place up on the stage in the gym, where much singing, dancing, and theatrical performing occurs. Some skits were just plain inexplicable, such as the guys who wore skin-tight body suits and pumpkin masks while gyrating to an Outkast song. Other skits neared meditative performance art level. I could see the group of girls who created a giant frying pan whose skit consisted entirely of them playing the role of popcorn being popped performing at some Lower East Side theater right after a Marguerite Duras film.*

I was more than just a spectator this year, as I lugged my Wii video game system and various peripheral instruments to school so that the students could partake in a little Beatles Rock Band. You see it was the culture festival, so I exposed them to the current American culture of young people obsessively hammering away at plastic instruments in front of television sets for hours on end. I spent a lot of time Katakana-izing the words to a bunch of Beatles songs only to have absolutely nobody volunteer to sing. And I was so looking forward to hearing various iterations of "Haroo, Goodobai." The drums and guitar, however, were quite popular. Inexplicably, they assigned me to the same room as the library's book sale. At least the librarian was pretty enthusiastic about my extremely noisy activity. At one point I showed a student how to control the menus so I could hop out and attend the tea ceremony I had signed up for. I guess he didn't let anybody else play because by the time I returned he had gone from beginner to Ringo equal. I may not be getting very far with trying to teach students to speak in full English sentences in class, but I'm pretty sure they've got "press the green button" down.

*Film school nerd's note: please don't try to watch a Marguerite Duras film. It will almost make you long for the excitement of Warhol's Empire. That's right, I just explained a pretentious film reference with a slightly less pretentious film reference. Gotta use that degree somehow.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Arcade Adventures

Japanese arcades are not quite as glamorous as US nerds might imagine. They're loud, smoky, and at a certain point you get get a little bored with "shoot the gun at the screen as fast as you can" games. Occasionally, however, you find a game or two that makes enduring sensory overload worth it. First, I give you "The Typing of the Dead." Like many games, the object is to kill zombies. Instead of a gun, however, you are armed only with a keyboard. When the zombie uprising eventually occurs, I can only hope that they way to defeat them will be rapidly typing the Japanese words for panda and kettle.

They say that video games allow you to experience the adventures you've dreamed about since childhood. Well who hasn't dreamed of being a frustrated, under-appreciated Salaryman? In this game you play a balding company man who sits down to a well deserved rest at dinner with his family. Only your children have decided they'd rather talk on their cell phones and play with their Gameboys than show you their appreciation. What's a father to do? FLIP THE DINNER TABLE!

Yes, that's it. You flip a little table up and get points for how much damage you cause. Brilliant.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Maybe "Height-Impaired II" would've been a bit more sensitive

Japan is famous for its small, boxy cars, but inside they're generally not all that different from an American compact or subcompact.

On the other hand, this model, which I spotted on a car lot here in Kanazawa, takes the cake for space and size efficiency (if not style or sleekness):

What kind of name could this car have? What pithy noun or adjective could sum up this lime green... thing? Maybe something bland along the lines of Corolla, or possibly some kind of pun on the small size and higher efficiency of this kind of tiny, single-occupant vehicle?

Midget II. Yeah. Makes you wonder what Midget I looked like, or even if there was one; given the profound lack of disregard for coherency in English names and labels here, I wouldn't be surprised if Midget II was actually the first and only.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pika Pika Kanazawa

Excerpts from a neat long exposure flashlight animation project filmed in our city a couple years ago.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Konnichiwa. Ron Howard desu.

Greg managed to get two days off in a row for once, so we took a trip to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.

Fisherman's Wharf, Japan

The journey was hardly epic. In our continuing quest to see garish American culture through the eyes of the Japanese we ended up at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. They had a whole mini San Francisco land that had the various signs and outward appearences of San Francisco landmarks but none of the substance. Or the homeless people. Here's "The Haight." I guess the Japanese think hippies are half sea horse?

The Haight, Japan

They did however have a mega-sized Mel's Diner. The menu was limited to basic burger, fries, and a shake combos, although they were all scaled down to a quarter of the size of their American counterparts. I think my Dad would have cried at the sight of the size-of-a-redbull-can milkshakes. Not to mention that the combos were going for $17. Ahhh, Japan.

Mel's diner in Japan

I think Universal Studios Japan just inherited rides that were no longer popular in America and dubbed them into Japanese. What's hilarious about this was how manly they made everybodyl seem. Ron Howard sounded like he would kick your ass in a dark alley. The only exception was the Terminator 2 ride. Arnold sounded more human than ever.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm not a pervert. I'm just a person who can understand your shirt.

Japanese camera phones have the unfortunate feature that you can't turn off the extremely loud fake camera shutter sound effect. I say this is unfortunate not because I want perverts to take up-skirt shots of me on the train (which is why the feature is required), but because it prevents me from serendipitously photographing the amazing t-shirts I see on a daily basis. My recent favorite was a teenage girl at summer camp whose shirt boldly declared "Let's be hippies! MARIJUANA," but this was replaced today by a woman's shirt bearing the words "Now that the kids are older, let's talk about duilding a new addition onto the house" in the spot American girls reserve for tramp stamps. Yes, I know that's a d.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Let's understanding

After you've been at the English teaching game in this country for a while, a certain cynicism inevitably sets in. Whether it's bored, unmotivated students, unhelpful co-workers, or burnout from teaching dozens of different classes the same old thing every week, grousing about respective work situations is a frequent topic of conversation whenever ALTs and/or eikaiwa folk get together.

Beyond that, though, I think a lot of people would agree that the worst aspect of teaching English in Japan is often the teaching materials you're supplied with. It's filled with ridiculous, cheesy songs and completely unrealistic spoken dialogue sequences, often with bizarre, non-standard English that no native speaker could even dream up. I mean, I remember dumb stuff like this when I took French in high school, but the Japanese have practically turned it into an art form, all the while not noticing how completely ineffective it is, not to mention despised by teachers and students alike.

So it's with that in mind that I, and probably every other person who has taught English in Japan, found the following video completely hilarious. Someone took the audio CDs from Eigo Noto (English Note, the standard middle school English textbook) and created a video around them, which... well, just watch. You might not appreciate it as much as someone who's had to actually use materials like these, but it's funny nonetheless.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Kyoto, please

It was Obon in Japan, meaning Greg and I could easily get some time off. To reward myself for another exhausting and bug bite filled three days at the prefectural English summer camp, we decided to head down to Kyoto for a few days of food, walking, and monkeys.

cafe la siestaThis was taken at Cafe La Siesta, a tiny place that was essentially made for us because it has an extensive vegan menu and it's devoted to retro video games. The place had stacks upon stacks of Famicom games and little TVs scattered about on which to play them. Greg is enjoying a game of Puyo Puyo while we wait for our food. We also had excellent meals at Mumokuteki, Cafe Proverbs, and Falafel Garden, the closest falafel place we've managed to find yet is sadly more than two hours away.

We did a lot of walking and exploring on this trip, but it was difficult. A kind shop keeper explained to us that out of all the cities in this area of Japan Kyoto is the most humid. It made it a little easier to come back to Kanazawa where it takes a good twenty minute outside to be sweating buckets rather than Kyoto's three. One hike made difficult by the heat was the journey up to the Iwatayama Monkey Park in Arashiyama. Here's a little monkey action for you:

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roadside kitsch

This weekend was spent looking for some of the stranger local tourist attractions. First up we returned to Takayama, but this time we visited the Hikaru Museum, which is apparently run by some religious cult that thinks we get all of our feelings from light or something. They have a massive building that's eerily empty. We walked into the enormous lobby mid light/laser/music show, which was truly bizarre. Other exhibits included a dinosaur fossils, recreations of ancient works of art, and a giant room containing an enormous statue of the cult leader standing on a UFO. We also later visited their huge temple which contained a fish tank that stretched the entire length of the giant pulpit and they offered us free sake on the way out. Seemed a little too "try the Kool-aid!" to us so we declined.

On Sunday we decided to explore a little more of Ishikawa's Noto Peninsula. Our first stop was Hakui, Japan's UFO capital. They celebrate this status with a little museum. The girl selling tickets was very excited to repeat her speech encouraging us to take the "おもしろいエレベター” (interesting elevator) all the way to the second floor. It consisted of a black light and some glowing stickers. Up top the exhibits were a little more impressive, consisting mostly of life-size models of various spacecraft. Also present were several UFO photos, and this adorable alien autopsy model:

Besides rubber aliens, Hakui is famous for a beach you can drive on. The novelty of driving on the beach wears off after approximately 50 feet.

Our friend's car is adorable. There's an all electric version and if I were forced to drive for some reason I'd probably get one.

Next we went to the Ganmon caves, but the stop after that was probably the most pleasant serendipitous discovery. I was under the impression that I had been made aware of all of the Noto's tourist attractions, but somehow I missed THE SINGLE GREATEST SIGHT IN ALL OF THE NOTO. Screw Senmaida. The Wajima morning market? Fuggidaboutit. This, my friends, is the longest bench in the world. It goes on forever. Marvel at its beauty.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Taiwan roundup

It's coming up on a week since we got back from Taiwan, and I still miss it a little. I don't miss the hotter-than-you'd-expect-for-May weather, but everything else was great. I thought I should mention a couple things we neglected to mention in earlier posts:

- We visited Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world.

- We went to Window on China, a kids' theme park that inexplicably focuses on scale dioramas of things like shipping containers and power plants (as well as some impressive historical displays. There's also an adjacent section, accessible only by minature train, that's more like a carnival/theme park, with decidedly less educational value.

- We took a very long and windy bus ride to Yehliu Geopark, a naturally occurring beachside of some of the most bizarre rock formations I've ever seen.

-We hit up no fewer than three all-vegetarian buffets.

At two of them, you pay by weight, so I ended up with this fairly large meal for about 3 US dollars:

(That vaguely brown-purple mass on the bottom was one big chunk of stinky tofu)

- And we went to the Taipei Zoo. Here's some video of both of their pandas:

One nice touch is that there are poo-related factoids in all of the bathrooms. This one reveals the heretofore unknown depths of kangaroos' depravity:

Friday, May 7, 2010

Oh, so that's what that rotting garbage smell is!

One of my prime objectives in coming to Taiwan was to find and eat stinky tofu. For the uninitiated, it's basically tofu that's been marinated in some kind or another of rotting, fermented goop. I've seen TV shows about how they make it-- usually, it involves a big plastic tub full of this incomprehensible black slime, full of weeks-old rotting vegetables and god knows what else. It has a characteristic odor comparable to limburger cheese, or worse, but it's an extremely popular mainstay at restaurants, night markets, food stands, and anywhere else you can imagine. It's almost impossible to walk down a busy street in Taipei and not have that familiar and vaguely nauseating stench waft your way.

The problem with it (from a non-animal-eater's point of view) is that if you pick any stinky tofu vendor at random, you can never really be sure what they put in the marinade. It could just be old, putrid vegetables, it could be fish eyes, it could be squid guts-- hell, it could be liquified hog uterus for all you know. There are even stories of less-scrupulous sellers in mainland China who use human feces to speed up the fermentation process. Taiwan is considered to be decidedly more sanitary in their practices, but it's still a gamble, especially if you have any dietary restrictions.

Even if I could speak Chinese, the vendors are reluctant to divulge the contents of whatever toxic waste they've submerged the tofu into, since it's kind of a trade secret that results in each stand's unique flavor. Despite my enthusiasm, I didn't want to chance picking a street vendor at random while not knowing if my tasty fried snack had been in an open-air jug of chicken intestines for the last month.

Fortunately, the Supreme Master came to my rescue. Long story short, Supreme Master Ching Hai is the leader of a vaguely cult-like group that owns dozens of restaurants around the world and promotes a vague message of vegetarianism, humanitarianism, and general weirdness. I don't buy into her claims of divinity, but her restaurants can always be counted on for a tasty, reasonably-priced and animal-product-free meal, and as far as cults go, hers seems more benign than most.

Her group is based out of Taiwan, so there are no fewer than 12 of her Loving Huts in the Taipei area alone. One of these specializes in stinky tofu, so I insisted we make a stop at this place, despite Andrea's reluctance. Once inside, we went for two variations on the noodle bowl, which each boasted a half-dozen chunks of the fetid bean curd.

The verdict... not that bad! Pretty tasty, actually. We got the impression that Loving Hut's stinky tofu was a bit toned down for easily-startled foreign diners.

Our guess would later be proven correct at Raohe Night Market. Another popular weekend gathering place, Taipei's night markets (Raohe is one of several) are jam-packed full of food carts, tea stands, knock-off clothing and shoe stalls, and lots more. Somewhat dejected that I wouldn't be able to get the full stinky tofu experience, I happened upon a food stand that contained not only the familiar characters for Cho Do Fu (the stinky stuff), but also the standard Vegetarian Food marker! 40 Taiwan Dollars (or about $1.20) later, here was my result:

Garnished with a sweet, BBQ-like sauce, and with a side of pickled cabbage, presumably as a palate cleanser. It doesn't work.

So, here's the verdict on this one: this night market food cart version of stinky tofu was a lot stronger than the Loving Hut version. The fact that it's fried reduces the initial odor somewhat, but it more than makes up for that once it gets in your mouth. I actually liked i t quite a bit, although I had a hard time getting the taste out of my mouth for the rest of the night, despite a much-needed fruit juice intervention.

So, for the prospective Taiwan traveller interested in this fair-yet-foul dish, what's my advice? Know a few basic characters and phrases, know where you're going and exactlyhow to get there (a map, along with a good sense of direction or, failing that, a compass, is key), and try really hard not to let the smell dissuade you. You will find the putridity surprisingly rewarding!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


On Monday we took a bus out to Wulai, a hot spring town about an hour out of Taipei. It was a far better experience than any Japanese onsen I've been to yet. First of all, it's free. It's outdoors alongside a river so you have a magnificent view. This means that it's also co-ed and requires swimsuits, which is a plus. The water has no sulfur so it's not stinky. We changed into our suits at the makeshift changing shacks, rinsed off, and picked a pool. It was a far more relaxed atmosphere than the Japanese onsen. There were dogs lounging around the pool and people were passing around bowls of food. We moved into a hotter pool after that. I only got up to my knees but Greg managed to sit for a few minutes. After much goading by the locals we went down to the river itself. The runoff from the hot spring ends up there, so it has the bizarre effect of making the surface near scalding but anything two inches below the surface is incredibly cold. I swam a few circles for a few minutes before heading back up to warmer waters.

We visited an aboriginal restaurant for lunch. Andrew Zimmern visited the same place on Bizarre Foods:

Although our vegetarianism forced us to decline the bees and the rotten jar of meat, we did enjoy the very tasty betelnut flower salad. The nuts themselves are commonly sold by scantily clad women on the side of the road to passing truck drivers. It has the effect of keeping the chewer awake and his mouth bright red. We have declined to give it a go. We also had a mushroom and rice dumpling, bird's nest ferns, and really delicious fried balls of taro and mochi.

Our last stop in Wulai was the waterfall. You ride a gondola to the top where they have some sad looking outdoor activities and a very out of place haunted house ride. We also enjoyed the rope course.

On the way back to the bus stop from the gondola you can ride a tiny, rickety train that was previously used to transport logs up and down the hill. All and all it was a very worthwhile day trip from Taipei.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Taiwan: my tummy loves it

The first week of May in Japan consists of a series of holidays lumped together called Golden Week that effectively give everybody the week off. We've decided to spend our Golden Week in Taipei, Taiwan. It's been a while since we've been dumped into a country were we've had zero language ability. I think I'm physically incapable of controlling the tone of my voice. If anyone's witnessed the horror of me playing the Rock Band video game on vocals, you'd know I fail even the easy level. Thus, tonal languages are not for me. Thankfully transportation has been ridiculously easy thus far. The subway is very simple, and, unlike Tokyo, the maps are always bilingual. Weirdly enough our travel agent booked us at a hotel catered to Japanese cliental, but I guess it's nice to have everything in a language we can sort of read instead of one we can't read at all.

So far, we've been EATING. Taiwan is incredibly vegetarian friendly. This afternoon we planned to have lunch a fancy veggie buffet but our map was wrong. Once we had given up and started to search for a different place to eat we actually passed a tiny dive of a vegetarian shop. This has never happened when we've traveled before. Thankfully we've memorized the characters for vegetarian restaurant. As we stood looking confused at the menu painted on the wall, a woman came up and spoke nearly perfect English and offered to help us order. Greg ended up with a veggie beef bowl and I had some sesame noodles. Our massive meals were only about a $1.50 each. That's another thing I'm loving about this place; it's so cheap. I've heard it's expensive compared to most of Asia but compared to Japan I feel positively rich here. I bought a giant cup of tea for $1 and used my new favorite food selection method of smiling and pointing randomly at the menu. It's worked great so far.

After lunch we went to the Miniatures Museum of Taiwan, which basically consisted of many impressive dollhouse scenes. Weirdly enough, most of them seemed to have been built by bored mid western Americans. Here's a tiny playroom:
There was one that looked like a crazy cat house, complete with litter box using kitties:

After that we hit up an electronics market and then we went to Taipei 101, the former tallest building in the world. The world's fastest elevator shot us up to the 91st floor in 37 seconds flat. The weather wasn't great, so here's the best shot I could get:

Visibility decreased rapidly beyond that point. You also get to see the Super Big Wind Damper that keeps the building from tipping over. Yes, that's the official title.

Then we headed to a vegan hot pot place and ordered entirely too much food. The concerned and friendly English speaking waiter had to walk us through what to do because we are useless foreigners. I went with the super spicy Szechwan pot and although my mouth was on fire it was divine.

Other observations thus far:
  • The smells are intense. Japan never really smells like anything but walking down the street here it goes from intensely horrible to intensely awesome and back again every few seconds
  • Traffic is insane. There is not an inch of sidewalk without a scooter parked on it. We've nearly gotten hit a few times and we already witnessed an accident.
  • I've seen a few stray dogs but it's weirdly not depressing. They're really friendly and well fed so I think street vendors look out for them.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A cat house

Being unable to visit Caramel in Oakland has left Greg sorely in need of some kitty time, and Japan has just the thing for people like him. Cat cafes are places you can go to, well, hang out with cats. Sounds pleasant in theory, but the thing is that when you've spent money to hang out with cats you expect the cats to put in a little effort to hang out with you. Cats, however, do not understand this basic tenet of capitalism.

Nekoburo is on the top floor of the huge Tokyu Hands DIY store in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. Each cat has a break room with some sort of theme. It reminded me of the orphanage in John Waters' Crybaby. "This is Olive and he enjoys washing dishes and leopard print chaise lounges."

When not lounging in their oddly themed rooms, the cats spend most of their time competing with each other for high ground where people can't reach them, and running away from the paying customers. The only person in the building who managed to get some kitty head scratches in was Greg, naturally.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tokyo Dizunii, please!

As you might've already seen from Andrea's photostream, we went to Tokyo! Not just to Tokyo, but Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea.

Tokyo Disneyland is pretty much what you'd expect (near-identical to the Anaheim one), although there are few neat touches.

After diligently standing in line for a Space Mountain FastPass, we saw that the wait for Star Tours wasn't too bad. I can't emphasize to you how surreal seeing an animatronic C-3PO speaking Japanese can be at 9 AM after a long, sleepless overnight bus ride.

There are popcorn stands everywhere, with flavors ranging from chocolate to caramel, and lines as long as some of the rides themselves. This one is actually selling curry-flavored popcorn.

Standing in line for the Haunted Mansion.

These were the only vending machines I saw inside the park. They were in Tomorrowland, if it wasn't obvious.

Yes, we did the teacups. We were happy that we hadn't eaten anything immediately beforehand.

Unfortunately, since we went on a Sunday, the lines were insane. If you imagine a typical crowded day at Disneyland and triple it, you might have an idea. We managed to get FastPasses to most of the rides we wanted to get to, although Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters was jam-packed from the 8:00 AM opening onward and perpetually had a 3.5+ hour wait. If we had opted for the FastPasses, we would've had to come back at in about 10 hours.

The next day was reserved for DisneySea. This is the strange new themepark that has a vague nautical feel, along with some equally impressive line waits. Through both days, though, we managed to only have to stand in a long line once, for the Tower of Terror. I managed to finish half a book in the 2.5 hours we were waiting.

This park's gimmick is that its various lands are meant to look like seaport styles from around the world. There was Italy, New England, Middle East, Jungle, and late-19th-century New York, among others. There's also a giant volcano, which houses the Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea rides.

Inside the volcano. You don't actually get to go in the submarine, unfortunately. 20,000 Leagues is a cute but kind of disappointing ride where you go in a miniature faux-submarine that's not actually underwater and see a bunch of weird fake-looking sea-people who resemble geckos. I would've been more disappointed if I had waited 3 hours for it, but we grabbed a pass for it instead.

Journey to the Center of the Earth was more fun, but had some of the same dinky, silly-looking animatronics. The weird thing about DisneySea was that, except for Tower of Terror, it seems like they spent all their time and money making the exteriors of the rides look good, and then skimped on the rides themselves somewhat. Center of the Earth at least managed to redeem itself with a (brief) roller-coaster portion.

In the upper right is the Tower of Terror, which is a free-fall ride in the dark. It was a long wait but I'd say it was worth it.

In addition to the innumerable popcorn stands, DisneySea was also big on churros. Here, Andrea holds two black sesame-flavored churros (yes, black sesame!).

So, that was the first two days of our journey! Fun times all around, even if it was pretty chilly and windy at times. It's easy enough to get to from the Tokyo city center that I'd say it's worth it if you have an extra day or two there and aren't sure what else to do.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Japanese Alps, please

This weekend, we decided to get one last taste of the snow by heading up to the Japanese Alps. The train ride in to Takayama was absolutely gorgeous. We arrived Friday evening and stayed at a hostel. In the morning, a hostel employee drove us to Shirakawago, an adorable village that was isolated from the rest Japan for a long time. We in fact had to drive through Japan's second longest tunnel (30 miles) just to get to the village. It's famous for this unique style of farm house designed to withstand the heavy snow the area receives. Each house has a thick triangular straw roof. You might notice there's no chimney. There is a large fire burning constantly in each house, and the homeowners discovered that the intense smoke prevented bugs from destroying the roof. It makes breathing difficult and every surface gets coated with black ash, but, hey, no bugs!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Here comes the sun-- wait, scratch that, it's just more rain...

Today (at least over here), it's March 1st. After two chilly months, the snow is almost completely gone save a few slush piles up in the hills, and we're back to our regularly scheduled programming of rain, and temperatures in the low 50s. Apart from one bizarre sunny day in the upper 60s, it looks like this what we can expect for at least the next month.

The last sign of snow was only a couple of weeks ago, so I'm almost still in the mentality that I need to be prepared if I have to hole up in the apartment in case of some kind of freak blizzard. Fortunately, at the local sporting goods store, there was at least one food I knew I could count on:

This, boys and girls, is canned bread. More specifically, it's Sabaibaru Pan, or Survival Bread! I rest assured that I can tear one of these open next time there's a snowstorm and it's impossible to get out (read: most likely never, or if it does happen, in about 9 or 10 months).

Speaking of winter food, neither of us has yet to track down the elusive yakiimo man. I hear him and his damn "YAAAAAAAAAKIIIIIMOOOOOO" song every couple of days, but he only seems to drive by, headed off to places unknown. Just once, I'd like to walk down a street in our neighborhood and see him open for business, selling his delicious roasted sweet potatoes. But no, it's always at some crazy hour (seriously, I've heard it at 9 in the morning and 11 at night) in which he's just zipping by our building, leaving only an aroma and a creaky ballad about potatoes in his wake.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Sukiyaki" - it's not just for dinner

This song, popularly known as "Sukiyaki" (aka the Japanese hotpot dish) in the U.S., is a jaunty little number about a lonely, sad walk in the night. The actual name is "Ue wo muite arukou", or "Looking Up While Walking." Its freak popularity in the US came when a DJ in Washington state played it on a lark, and suddenly found himself with a hit!

The singer, Kyu Sakamoto, is considered one of the most influential Japanese musicians. Sadly, he died in what ended up being the deadliest plane crashes in history in 1985.

Thanks to Jeff Oliver for forwarding this to me!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I'm still pretty sure a first grader can out talk me though...

We are officially Japanese 1st graders! Well, language-wise anyway. Thankfully we both passed the JLPT 4 quite easily, which apparently means we have mastered 80 kanji and 800 words. We both know more than that, so next December we hope to shoot for a higher level...
...which brings me to the second topic of this post: we're staying another year! It was a tough decision, but we haven't been able to travel nearly as much as we've wanted to and, let's face it, this is pretty easy money. I've pretty much gotten the hang of things at work and next year will be even easier because I can recycle lesson plans from this year. Besides, neither of us has really figured out what we want to do when we get back, so hip-hip-hooray for procrastinating!
Because we're sticking around we've made a few upgrades to our living situation. Japanese homes typically don't have an oven, but they'll often feature a "moven" microwave/toaster oven combo. We didn't even get that. We have finally given in to our grumbling tummies' demands for fresh baked goods. We got an adorable little table top electric oven off of Amazon and I'm totally in love with it. Here's some bread I made (real bread, with crust!). It works surprisingly well.

I'm lazy so I usually just run through google translate when I'm shopping online. This makes shopping far more interesting than it is on boring old For example, we needed a table to put the oven on top of:

Our table table table table is working out quite nicely.

Today some of my students at the special needs school told me about Setsubun, which is when Japanese people celebrate the coming of spring by having beans thrown at them. This seemed ridiculous until I had to tell them about Groundhog Day.